As I mentioned in my last piece, third base will be a big question mark entering the offseason. Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas is arguably the top free agent option at the hot corner, but could we see the Braves get creative with a 2018 signing? Look no further than a divisional foe of recent years, one Neil Walker.
Neil Walker, INF
Current team: Milwaukee Brewers
Current contract: 1-year $17.2M (accepted qualifying offer after 2016 season)
Current 2017 stats: .268/.341/.442 with 10 HR in 74 games. 108 wRC+
2018 age: 32
The player: Walker is in his 9th MLB season and recently joined his third team of his career. The vast majority of his career has been spent in Pittsburgh, but the Braves saw plenty of Walker in a New York Mets uniform over the last two seasons. Once it became clear the Mets weren’t reaching the playoffs in 2017, they worked out a deal with the Brewers, where Walker hopes to reach the playoffs for the third time of his career. Over 1,023 MLB games, the switch-hitting Walker has posted a .273/.339/.437 slash line, good for a 114 wRC+. Although Walker is not known as the typical middle-of-the-order masher, he has been good for a 162-game average of 31 doubles and 20 HR over the course of his career. Needless to say, he’d make a nice addition to Atlanta’s 2018 lineup.
Why it would work: The biggest concern with a Walker signing would be the position change. Braves prospect Ozzie Albies is arguably the top second base prospect in all of baseball, and appears to be a lock to hold down the position for the 2018 Braves. Meanwhile, Walker has only appeared in 18 games at third over his big league career. Could a switch to third base work for Walker? Well you have to take a deeper look at his professional career. Walker initially came up as a third baseman in the Pittsburgh system (354 career minor league games at 3B; only 32 games at 2B). He graded as a strong defender as a third base prospect, but was moved to second base to allow the Pirates to get both Walker and Pedro Alvarez in the lineup together. The position switch worked out well, and Walker stuck at second for the majority of the his time in Pittsburgh.
Why it won’t work: Like Moustakas, Walker is one of the top free agent options entering 2018. There are plenty of teams with question marks at second base entering the offseason (most notably the Mets and the Blue Jays), and there’s always the chance a mid-market team like Atlanta wouldn’t be able to outbid other suitors. Another reason it may not work could be the fact that Atlanta may not be willing to sign a player like Walker to a multi-year deal without knowing how well he’d transition back to third at this stage in his career (it’s worth noting Walker’s first game with the Brewers was at third base as Travis Shaw nurses a foot injury). Having said that, don’t forget how smooth Brandon Phillips has looked at third. Phillips is a great defender in his own right, but this move is not unprecedented.
Conclusion: Neil Walker would be a great addition to the 2018 Atlanta lineup. His switch-hitting ability would fit in perfect between Ender Inciarte and Freddie Freeman at the top of Atlanta’s lineup. With Walker turning 32 soon, the Braves probably wouldn’t be willing to go for more than 3 years on a contract offer, but he could give Atlanta solid production at a position of need. On top of that, he could be insurance at second base if Albies suffers a sophomore slump similar to what we’ve seen from Dansby Swanson in 2017. Signing Walker and moving him to third base would definitely be thinking outside the box, but a mid-market team like the Braves needs to be creative if they want to get back into playoff contention.